Various Artists at Green River Festival (Greenfield MA – July 11, 2015)
Even on a sold-out Saturday, the Green River Festival in Greenfield, MA is still a relaxing, user-friendly place to be. And with a gentle breeze and temperatures in the mid-80s, the setting was tailor-made for the blast of fantastic music wafting from the three stages. There was never anything even approaching a dull moment, and you never know who you’re going to bump into. For me, it was a long-lost niece from Boston, my doctor, an old editor colleague I hadn’t seen in years, and a big fan of my Kinks-loving Muswell Hillbillies band.
Musically the day was filled with all kinds of highlights, including a mid-afternoon performance by Booker T. Jones and band that turned out to be one for the ages.
Getting things started on the Green River Stage (the main stage) was Suitcase Junket from nearby Amherst, MA. His real name is Matt Lorenz and he truly is a one-man band who plays guitar and some slide guitar, all sorts of percussion, and sometimes sings in a style he describes as overtone or throat singing. He also writes incredibly melodic and engaging blues-tinged songs (think Delta Blues meets Led Zeppelin and Woody Guthrie), and seeing this one guy make all this music had lots of people at the Festival doing double takes.
The Stray Birds are making a name for themselves with their rootsy Americana mix of country, folk, and bluegrass, and on the Green River Stage, they played songs from last year’s acclaimed Bad Medicine album. They also proved to be a band with a political conscience, commenting on the taking down of the Confederate flag in South Carolina and at one point dedicating a song to Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King.
It’s about a 10-minute walk across the Festival grounds and down the hill to more food and crafts vendors, a large area for kids, plenty of room for Frisbee, and two more stages. I arrived at the larger of the two, the Four Rivers Stage, just as a guy from radio station WRSI–The River with the same last name as me was introducing the band Polaris, known back in the mid-1990s for writing and playing the music for the Nickelodeon show The Adventures of Pete and Pete. As that Sokol guy on stage pointed out, this band has remained kind of a “mythical creature” behind the TV screen… until now. But finally, nearly 20 years after the show was cancelled, the band is breaking down the fourth wall and touring. And they’re really good! Led by Mark Mulcahy, once of indie-rock sensations Miracle Legion, Polaris were musically tight and lots of fun. Mulcahy, whose songs were honored by such artists as Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, Frank Black, Juliana Hatfield, and Dinosaur Jr. on the Ciao My Shining Star tribute, dedicated an old Miracle Legion chestnut, “All for the Best,” to birthday-boy Leon Spinks and also wished John Quincy Adams a happy birthday. “Hey Sandy,” from Pete and Pete was a particular crowd fave, and one of those in the crowd was none other than J Mascis.
Mascis, it turns out, was next up on the main stage, performing solo, and there were lots of J and Dinosaur Jr. fans right up front, for what turned out to be one of the loudest GRF performances ever. Just Mascis and his guitar, playing old Dino Jr gems including “The Wagon” and “Not You Again.” At one point, he said, “My wife wanted me do this cover so maybe some of you would know one of the songs.” He played a very coy version of Carly Simon’s “Anticipation.” And it worked! Mascis even sounded a bit like Todd Snider on this one. He then brought up Mulcahy to play on “Every Morning” from Tied to a Star, which Mulcahy guested on. In the mood to do another cover, Mascis asked, “Would you rather hear Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Cure?” Of course the latter got the more stirring response so he played “Just Like Heaven” At the end, Mascis, a Amherst native joked, “Where are we? Greenfield?” Mascis is an indie rock god and a significant influence on Nirvana and Sonic Youth, and his presence added a dynamic flavor to the day. That aforementioned radio guy took the stage at the end of Mascis’s set, saying, “We are so lucky to have witnessed that.” Indeed we were.
Though there were highlights aplenty on this Saturday in the park, the show put on by Booker T. Jones was one folks will be talking about for years. During the set, Jones moved back and forth between Hammond organ and guitar, all the while regaling the crowd with charming stories about his remarkable career. He first basked in the limelight when the now-classic “Green Onions” became a huge hit for Booker T. & The MG’s. Booker was all of 17 at the time. During the 75-plus minute set, Jones and his ace band played many of his timeless instrumental hits, from “Soul Limbo” (“they use this for their cricket games in England”) and “Hip Hug-Her” (“this is for my wife of 30 years; that’s her right behind me”) to “Time is Tight” and “Hang ’Em High” (which he first heard on a cassette tape from Dominic Frontiere, the song’s composer, who at one time would be married to the owner of the L.A. Rams). On all these songs, Jones’s patented and sometimes brilliantly minimalist organ playing and sound were pitch perfect.
Jones talked about seeing Jimi Hendrix very early on when the guitarist was an Isley Brothers sideman, and knowing Stax Records labelmate Otis Redding back when he was carrying other people’s suitcases and asking if he could sing a song in the studio. Of course Jones and band played “Respect” and “Everything is Everything,” a song he recorded with the Roots, as well as “I’m A Man,” “Hey Joe,” even “Purple Rain.” And Jones’s singing was spot on. Not bad for a suave seventysomething legend. Even as the show was running a little long (and GRF is known for adhering to schedules), Jones, to the surprise of Festival director Jim Olsen, played one last song on guitar, a wonderfully soulful version of the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.”
After the set, Olsen told the still-cheering crowd, “We’ve just had a master class in soul music.” Amen.
I was musically satiated at this point (with apologies to Milk Carton Kids, Rubblebucket, and Bella’s Bartok, all of whom I heard nothing but raves about) but had just enough musical juice left to see the end of Marco Benevento’s set on the Parlor Room stage (the third stage). With birthday girl Hannah Mohan from young sensations And the Kids joining Benevento and band, the ridiculously talented pianist ended his set with a super-charged version of “At the Show,” a dance song that really should propel him into national and international stardom. The crowd went wild! And as I write this the next morning, I can not get that song out of my head. Check it out. This song will really grow on you. And I can’t wait to get back to the Festival grounds for a Sunday that promises the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Steve Earle and the Dukes, and much more. Watch this space.
Booker T. Jones and band photo by Janis G. Sokol